Western farmers frustrated over falling number testing

As if this harvest wasn’t already frustrating enough, some farmers are left shaking their head as they leave the elevator. Recently, RealAgriculture’s inbox has been flooded with concerns about elevators checking wheat’s falling number on top of visual inspections for grading.

General manager of the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions, Tom Steve, says the organization has been hearing the same thing happening across the Prairies. Falling number is used as an international standard when buying and selling wheat, however, it’s not commonly used at the elevator in the west.

Falling number tests for the amount of sprout damage in wheat. According to the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) the number is the time in seconds for a stirrer to fall through a hot slurry of ground wheat. The greater the amount of alpha-amylase in the wheat (triggered by sprouting), the thinner the starch paste created, and the faster the plunger will fall through the slurry. A fast-sinking stirrer is not good when it comes to falling number.

High falling numbers generally indicate the wheat is in good standing for most baking processes. A No. 1 Canada Western Red Spring wheat normally has a falling number greater than 350 seconds.

Steve says western Canadian farmers have relied on the visual inspection for “decades and decades” so falling number hasn’t really been an issue until the harvest of 2016/2017 when conditions were poor.

“And again last year, we saw increasingly that grain companies were looking at falling numbers and applying discounts in some cases to producers…this year we’re seeing it more and more being a determinant of milling quality,” Steve says. “That does concern us because farmers have previously not had to think about this and they’re quite rightly confused about why it’s being introduced into the system.” (story continues below player)

Companies who do test for falling number are not in violation of the Canadian Grain Act as it’s not a grading factor. In fact, the CGC did have consultations earlier this year on whether it should be incorporated or not intro the grading system, but as it stands, they’re still looking into it.

“For any growers that sell into the U.S. market, falling number is a standard that they must meet and they receive premiums and discounts based on the falling number, but in the western Canadian environment, it hasn’t really been a factor, so a lot of producers are hearing from their sales reps and grain companies about falling number for the very first time this year,” he adds.

Having worked in the grain industry for quite some time, Steve understands the companies are trying to make sure that they have the right quality of grain to meet the specifications required by end users; however, he also understands the frustration on the farmers part because in essence there’s two competing systems.

“Wheat, in particular, is being judged based on falling number, and then the companies reserve the right to also use the visual system to evaluate for sprout damage.”

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